Earlier this year I tried to bribe an official. Actually, I didn’t really. But this was how it was construed. The experience made me think a lot about bureaucracy, process, control and leadership.
It all came about when I was asked to do a presentation at a conference. This was a commercial venture – for which speakers often receive a modest fee. I have never accepted a fee for this type of activity which I believe is part of my job in terms of public engagement. But at the same time I don’t believe I should give my labour for free. So in lieu of a ‘fee’ I received some complementary tickets which I then gave to our postgraduate students. Thereby enhancing their learning experience and indeed hopefully adding to the discussion at the conference itself. A classic win-win I would have thought.
Here’s where it all starts to unravel. Many of our students are employed by public bodies. One such student, from Anytown Council, mentioned to their boss that they had received a complementary ticket to a conference and would require the day away from the office to attend. At this point it’s important to remember that this was part of the student experience and would directly help the student in her studies – and in turn help in her job.
The response? The student was asked to complete a business case as to what the conference was about and exactly what the benefit would be for her job. So, instead, the student decided to take the day as annual leave.
At that point you might think that would be the end of it. Oh no. Next the student was told that this could be construed as a bribe. Yes, the student experience is no longer just about me trying to enhance the learning experience of the students – clearly I might be using this as part of some Machiavellian plot.
So, said student is sent the 50 page policy document on ‘gifts’ and asked to read carefully. Then, said student has to complete a form (there is always a form). It must be explained what the nature of the gift is, from whom it has been received and what potential conflicts of interest there might be. Meanwhile the public need better public service delivery. Clearly, this doesn’t help.
These policies and processes exist for good reason. But ultimately how they are interpreted and applied is key. Clearly there is a balance to be struck between following the letter of the policy in a literal and inflexible way vs following the principle of the policy in a proportionate way. Often this requires leadership – to say ‘is this really necessary?’.
What this story highlights for me is the importance of what we are doing at QMU. Our public services still need better leadership. There is still a long way to go. But I’m confident that through our MPA programme, research and CPD programmes we will help.